What the heck is Chai Tea? And what spices are in it?

May 20, 2016

What the heck is Chai Tea? And what spices are in it?

Authentic Masala Chai AKA ChaiThe names "Chai" and "Masala Chai" get thrown around a lot when talking about tea from India. But they can actually mean different things depending on which country you're in.

To understand why the chai thing has become more confusing than filling out an Indian customs form, it's important to know that the word "chai" actually just means "tea." That's it. If you order a "chai" in India, they'll just bring you a plain old hot tea.


So if you order a "chai tea" in India, you'll probably get some funny looks because you are really asking for a "tea tea." You wouldn't ask for a "coffee coffee," would you? (Although if you drink too much caffeine, you might.)


Then there is beautiful and complex drink called Masala Chai. Several thousand years ago in India, people started adding a multitude of aromatic, Ayurvedic spices to their tea and they created something entirely different known as "masala chai." The word "masala" means mix and we now know that "chai" means tea. So "masala chai" is simply a mixed tea or simply tea with other stuff like spices and milk in it.

Between 1840 and 1860, the British set up tea plantations in Assam, India. As a result, Assam black tea ended up being used in many masala chai recipes. (Reluctant Trading uses Assam tea in our critically acclaimed masala chai.) However, it wasn't until around 1900 that masala chai started to catch on in a bigger way in India. But the British kept masala chai from truly taking off for several years.


Interestingly, masala chai took time to catch on. That's because the British promoted drinking tea with just sugar and milk, the typical British way, because adding other spices decreased the amount of tea (and profits) that the British Tea companies were making on their tea. 

Chai Wallah serving Masala ChaiThere is no standard masala chai recipe as it is often the grandmother in each family that has passed down her own special recipe. Common ingredients found in masala chai include a decoction of warming spices such as green cardamom, clove, ginger, cinnamon and black pepper. But many other spices and combinations are commonly found in masala chai. 

Masala chai is commonly sold by street vendors called Chai Wallahs in many cities in north India.


The confusion about masala chai vs. chai probably started in America. Companies like Starbucks started dropping the "masala" - which means "mix" - from "masala chai." In the US, masala chai is often called "chai" even though in other parts of the world "chai" only means tea. Now you see the confusion. 


No matter what you call it, we're proud that our authentic Masala Chai, developed with award-winning Portland, OR, Chef Troy MacLarty, was named one of the country's best by Bon Appetit and Food & Wine.

In fact, our Bollywood Theater Masala Chai is as close as you can get to the stuff served by the Chai Wallahs in the streets of Delhi. 

Featured in Bon Appetit's "The Best Chai You Can Buy" and an editor's choice at Food & Wine

Our masala chai features the freshest Indian Assam Black Tea, Green Cardamom, Cloves, Black Pepper and Ginger (plus more) we could find. We worked with Bollywood Theater's Chef Troy MacLarty, to put together the recipe that he serves in his award-winning, third-eye opening restaurants. 

One of our Indian customers recently told us that she was convinced that we forcefully took the recipe from a poor grandma in India. (For the record, we did not!) 

Our partner on the ground in India, Mr. Divakar, travels from farm to farm, estate to estate, cherry-picking the freshest spices and highest quality Assam Tea just for us. We make our loose leaf masala chai in small batches and ship direct from India to maintain incredible freshness. 

We invite you to try our Bollywood Masala Chai. But you can just call it Chai if you want. Or Spiced Spiced Delicious Delicious Tea Tea. Whatever.

The Critics Have Raised a Glass to Our Authentic Masala Chai

Our Chai Does Not Strain for Credibility

Chef Troy MacLarty - The Guy Behind the Chai